Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle has become legendary, as insights gained by the bright young scientist on his trip to exotic places greatly influenced his masterwork, the book On the Origin of Species.
Darwin didn’t actually formulate his theory of evolution while sailing around the world aboard the Royal Navy ship. But the exotic plants and animals he encountered challenged his thinking and led him to consider scientific evidence in new ways.
H.M.S. Beagle is remembered today because of its association with Charles Darwin, but it had sailed on a lengthy scientific mission several years before Darwin came into the picture. The Beagle, a warship carrying ten cannons, sailed in 1826 to explore the coastline of South America. The ship had an unfortunate episode when its captain sank into a depression, perhaps caused by the isolation of the voyage, and committed suicide.
Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy assumed command of the Beagle, continued the voyage, and returned the ship safely to England in 1830. FitzRoy was promoted to Captain and named to command the ship on a second voyage, which was to circumnavigate the globe while conducting explorations along the South American coastline and across the South Pacific.
FitzRoy came up with the idea of bringing along someone with a scientific background who could explore and record observations. Part of FitzRoy’s plan was that an educated civilian, referred to as a “gentleman passenger,” would be good company aboard ship and would help him avoid the loneliness that seemed to have doomed his predecessor.
Darwin Was Invited to Sail Aboard H.M.S. Beagle in 1831
Inquiries were made among professors at British universities, and a former professor of Darwin’s proposed him for the position aboard the Beagle.
After taking his final exams at Cambridge in 1831, Darwin spent a few weeks on a geological expedition to Wales. He had intended to return to Cambridge that fall for theological training, but a letter from a professor, John Steven Henslow, inviting him to join the Beagle, changed everything.
Darwin was excited to join the ship, but his father was against the idea, thinking it foolhardy. Other relatives convinced Darwin’s father otherwise, and during the fall of 1831 the 22-year-old Darwin made preparations to depart England for five years.
With its eager passenger aboard, the Beagle left England on December 27, 1831. The ship reached the Canary Islands in early January, and continued onward to South America, which was reached by the end of February 1832.
During the explorations of South America, Darwin was able to spend considerable time on land, sometimes arranging for the ship to drop him off and pick him up at the end of an overland trip. He kept notebooks to record his observations, and during quiet times on board the Beagle he would transcribe his notes into a journal.
In the summer of 1833 Darwin went inland with gauchos in Argentina. During his treks in South America Darwin dug for bones and fossils, and was also exposed to the horrors of slavery and other human rights abuses.
Darwin Visited the Galapagos Islands
After considerable explorations in South America, the Beagle reached the Galapagos Islands in September 1835. Darwin was fascinated by such oddities as volcanic rocks and giant tortoises. He later wrote about approaching tortoises, which would retreat into their shells. The young scientist would then climb on top, and attempt to ride the large reptile when it began moving again. He recalled that it was difficult to keep his balance.
While in the Galapagos Darwin collected samples of mockingbirds, and later observed that the birds were somewhat different on each island. This made him think that the birds had a common ancestor, but had followed varying evolutionary paths once they were separated.
Darwin Circumnavigated the Globe
The Beagle left the Galapagos and arrived at Tahiti in November 1835, and then sailed onward to reach New Zealand in late December. In January 1836 the Beagle arrived in Australia, where Darwin was favorably impressed by the young city of Sydney.
After exploring coral reefs, the Beagle continued on its way, reaching the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa at the end of May 1836. Sailing back into the Atlantic Ocean, the Beagle, in July, reached St. Helena, the remote island where Napoleon Bonaparte had died in exile. The Beagle also reached a British outpost on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, where Darwin received some very welcome letters from his sister in England.
The Beagle then sailed back to the coast of South America before returning to England, arriving at Falmouth on October 2, 1836. The entire voyage had taken nearly five years.
After landing in England, Darwin took a coach to meet his family, staying at his father’s house for a few weeks. But he was soon active, seeking advice from scientists on how to organize specimens, which included fossils and stuffed birds, he had brought home with him.
In the following few years he wrote extensively about his experiences. A lavish five-volume set, The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, was published from 1839 to 1843.
And in 1839 Darwin published a classic book under its original title, Journal of Researches. The book was later republished as The Voyage of the Beagle, and remains in print to this day. The book is a lively and charming account of Darwin’s travels, written with intelligence and occasional flashes of humor.
Darwin, H.M.S. Beagle, and the Theory of Evolution
Darwin had been exposed to some thinking about evolution before embarking aboard H.M.S. Beagle. So a popular conception that Darwin’s voyage gave him the idea of evolution is not accurate. Yet is it true that the years of travel and research focused Darwin's mind and sharpened the powers of observation that would eventually lead to the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild